Medicine has become synonymous with drug therapy, a situation that is upsetting for patients and health care practitioners alike, and potentially dangerous.
This is especially true for elderly patients, many of whom are taking multiple agents from different practitioners who tend not to discontinue medications prescribed by their peers. This can lead to an ever-increasing number of pills taken, a circumstance called polypharmacy (being on five or more medications at one time), where there is a high risk for adverse reactions and drug interactions.
But overmedication should concern people of all ages, including the parents of young children.
For example, antibiotics are often incorrectly prescribed for the management of viral illnesses, such as upper respiratory tract infections, sometimes at the behest of parents. Not only does this practice place kids (and adults treated this way) at risk for possible allergic reactions and disruption of the microbiome, it also contributes to the development of microbial resistance. Antibiotics should be reserved for management of significant bacterial infections.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications may generally reduce symptoms associated with specific medical disorders, but rarely if ever do they address the root cause of disease, and too often they do more harm than good. Drug therapy can be an appropriate way to manage disease and improve health, but it is only one way to do so, and often not the best way. Of course, this perspective is in direct contrast to the pervasive messaging that pharmaceutical companies disseminate through direct-to-consumer marketing – a practice that should be banned.
Drug therapy should be used only when necessary and always in the context of a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses diet and lifestyle issues, and gives consideration to non-drug therapies.
It is in everyone’s best interest to reduce reliance on prescription medications. Do not take prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or vitamins, supplements or botanical remedies unless you know the reason for taking them, understand how they work, and can weigh potential benefits against potential risks.
Always keep an updated list of the medications you are taking, including the reasons for using them and dose. If you or someone you love is on multiple medications, or is using more than one agent to address a medical condition, I recommend consulting with a well-trained pharmacist for a medication therapy management (MTM) review which is escribed in my book.
Health care providers should ask about all agents being taken, including vitamins and supplements and be well trained in their appropriate use. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists should also be informed about healthy diet and lifestyle modification, how best to support behavior change in their patients, and how to make appropriate referrals to complementary medicine providers who may help patients reduce their need for drug therapy.
An integrative medicine practitioner is best positioned to advise patients on appropriate ways to manage common health issues without relying on medications. One day soon I trust we will be able to drop the word “integrative.” This will simply be good medicine.
Andrew Weil, MD, is the author of fourteen previous books, including Spontaneous Healing and Healthy Aging. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, he is a professor of public health, clinical professor of medicine, and the Lovell-Jones Professor of Integrative Rheumatology at the University of Arizona as well as director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
He is also editorial director of www.drweil.com, the leading resource for healthy living based on the philosophy of integrative medicine. He authors the popular Self-Healing newsletter and columns for Prevention magazine and is a frequent guest on numerous national talk shows. He lives in Arizona.